The writer-director of Licorice Pizza takes us on a journey through his 25 years of filming in his place of inspiration.

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BOOGIE NIGHTS, Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg, 1997
Credit: Everett Collection

Boogie Nights (1997)

Anderson's disco-era porn fantasia remains one of the great directorial breakouts. It's set and shot in the Valley, where the adult-film industry took root. "That setting was so rife with all the elements you might need for a story," says Anderson, 51, "whether they were salacious, human, humorous, or dramatic. And it was all in my own backyard! It didn't occur to me at the time how lucky I was." He can remember a period, however, when being from L.A. made him embarrassed. "It didn't seem interesting or worldly," he says. "But it turns out that's just bulls---, really. I think when filmmakers have an affection for their places — like John Hughes did — you feel it, and you see something authentic."

Credit: Everett Collection

Magnolia (1999)

The director remembers assembling his sprawling L.A. epic in pieces. "I'd had the Tom Cruise story for a little while," he recalls. "I had the story of the game show for a little while, having worked on one when I was 18. I had a small story I'd heard about a guy who got braces to impress girls. And the story of my father and his death was woven into that as well." Overall, though, it was a blooming sense of sureness that defined his setting. "Probably even more than Boogie Nights, I felt confident to tell a personal story, and there's really only one venue for that for me: at home in the Valley, where I'm living right now." Many of Magnolia's most affecting moments occur in cars. Driving at night in Los Angeles is a subject the filmmaker loves. "I mean, the joy of it," he says. "I still flash on getting out of the house and getting into your car and turning up the music as loud as it'll go — like, never, ever loud enough. Driving is freedom." 

Credit: Everett Collection

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

A harsh story about a loner in an inhospitable place (before it explodes into a euphoric romance), Punch-Drunk Love could only be shot, per Anderson, in the banal, industrial Valley wastelands of Northridge, where "characters could be dwarfed by incredibly large structures — really, they're just single-story warehouses." The sharp quality of Los Angeles' light during winter was key to capturing this intended mood, as was his very first scene, a spectacular car crash. "The sound of those things, it's terrifying —it can really rattle you," he says. "It's random violence from a long way away that you witness. People in cars, you never even see their faces. Things that happen that are monumental, that are orbiting just on the edges of your vision. It's a strangely common occurrence here."

Credit: Everett Collection

Inherent Vice (2014)

An early-'70s-set period piece ("during the second-day hang- over of the Manson era," Anderson specifies), the director's hallucinatory take on Thomas Pynchon's detective novel required a relocation south. "Beach life is completely different than Valley living," he says of his production's touching down in Manhattan Beach. "That's really outside of my world." To this day, Anderson will neither confirm nor deny if he actually collaborated on his screenplay with the reclusive Pynchon ("I could have had long conversations with him and never known if this man exists"), yet his understanding of the author's themes is never in doubt. "That paranoia in broad daylight, paranoia amid such beauty and glamour — it's a sinister kind of ooze that creeps into everything."

Credit: MGM

Licorice Pizza (2021)

"It's like gravity — it never pulls in any but one direction," Anderson jokes of his latest return to his home turf, shot in Tarzana and elsewhere. Part of his coming-of-age script emerged from nostalgia; part of it sprang from an honest, unapologetic appreciation of familiar ground. "The Valley has always been the working-class version of Hollywood and Beverly Hills," he says. "It's where the technicians who made the films live. Those sets from The Wizard of Oz were built by people in the Valley. All those rides at Disneyland were built in the Valley. Any vision of Los Angeles involves palm trees, right? But in the Valley, you see palm trees and power wires. And that kind of visually says it all right there."

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's February issue, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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